The Phenomenology of Mind, by G. W. F. Hegel

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Ethical Action. Knowledge, Human and Divine. Guilt and Destiny

Translator’s comments: A fundamental condition of social order is that it is maintained by action on the part of the individual members of a society; action is a fundamental principle of distinction between individuals, is the way they make their contribution to social life, and is also the way by which the continuance of social life is ceaselessly broken and reconstituted. In a comprehensive sense therefore action is the principle by which distinction in unity is carried out in social life. The consideration of its significance is thus an essential problem of social mind. Action must be considered at once with reference to individuality and also with reference to those conceptions of social order as containing both “divine” and “human” law. In the following section, this analysis is undertaken.

The specific historical background of Hegel’s thought in this section, and to some extent in the preceding section, is supplied by the social life of the Greek city state. The Greek city state has been taken as the type, so to say, of spiritual existence realized as a self-complete ethical order. But the social life of Greece is here in large measure read and interpreted in the light of the dramatization of Greek ethical conceptions by the great Greek tragedians, especially Sophocles. This accounts for the repeated reference to the purely dramatic conception of the “destiny” or the “pathic” element in the life of the individual whose spiritual existence is completely bound up with the established social order. It is in Greece that we find most fully realized the all-sufficiency of the state for the individual, which Hegel has here in view, a sufficiency which was at once the strength and beauty, as well as the pathos and weakness, of Greek social life.

With this and the preceding section should be read Hegel’s Philosophy of History, Part II, “The Greek World”.

Ethical Action. Knowledge, Human and Divine.
Guilt and Destiny

IN the form presented by the opposition of elements in the realm just dealt with, self-consciousness has not yet come to its rights as a single individuality. Individuality there has, on one side, the sense of merely universal will, on the other, of consanguinity of the family. This particular individual has merely the significance of shadowy unreality. There is as yet no performance of an act. The act, however, is the realized self. It breaks in upon the untroubled stable organization and movement of the ethical world. What there appears as ordinance and harmony between both its constituent elements, each of which confirms and complements the other, becomes through the performing of an act a transition of opposites into one another, by which each proves to be the annihilation rather than the confirmation of its self and its opposite. It becomes the process of negation or destruction, the eternal necessity of awful destiny, which engulfs in the abyss of its bare identity divine and human law alike, as well as both the self-conscious factors in which these powers subsist; and, to our view, passes over into the absolute self-existence of mere single self-consciousness.

The basis from which this movement proceeds, and on which it takes effect, is the kingdom of the ethical order. But the activity at work in this process is self-consciousness. Being ethical consciousness, it is the pure and simple direction of activity towards the essential principle of the ethical life — it is Duty. There is no caprice, and likewise no struggle, no indecision in it, since it has given up legislating and testing laws: the essential ethical principle is, for it, something immediate, unwavering, without contradiction. There is therefore neither the painful spectacle of finding itself in a collision between passion and duty, nor the comic spectacle of a collision between duty and duty — a collision, which so far as content goes is the same as that between passion and duty; for passion can also be presented as a duty, because duty, when consciousness withdraws into itself and leaves its immediate essential, substance (Wesenheit), comes to be the formal universal, into which one content fits equally well with another, as we found before. The collision of duties is, however, comical, because it brings out the contradiction inherent in the idea of an absolute standing opposed to another absolute, expresses something absolute and then directly the annihilation of this so-called absolute or duty. The ethical consciousness, however, knows what it has to do; and is decided, whether it is to belong to divine or human law. This directness which characterizes its decision is something immanent and inherent (Ansichseyn), and hence has at the same time the significance of a natural condition of being, as we saw. Nature, not the accident of circumstances or choice, assigns one sex to one law the other to the other law; or conversely both the ethical powers themselves establish their individual existence and actualization in the two sexes.

Thus, then, because on the one side the ethical order consists essentially in this immediate directness of decision, and therefore only the one law is for consciousness the essential reality; while, on the other side, the powers of the ethical order are actual in the self of conscious life — in this way these forces acquire the significance of excluding one another and of being opposed to one another. They are explicit in self-consciousness just as they were merely implicit in the realm of the ethical order. The ethical consciousness, because it is decisively on the side of one of them, is essentially Character. There is not for it equal essentiality in both. The opposition therefore appears as an unfortunate collision of duty merely with reality, on which right has no hold. The ethical consciousness is qua self-consciousness in this opposition, and being so, it at once proceeds either to subdue by force this reality opposed to the law which it accepts, or to get round this reality by craft. Since it sees right only on its own side, and wrong on the other, so, of these two, that which belongs to divine law detects, on the other side, mere arbitrary fortuitous human violence, while what appertains to human law finds in the other the obstinacy and disobedience of subjective self-sufficiency. For the commands of government have a universal sense and meaning open to the light of day; the will of the other law, however, is the inner concealed meaning of the realm of darkness (unterirdisch), a meaning which appears expressed as the will of a particular being, and in contradicting the first is malicious offence.

There arises in this way in consciousness the opposition between what is known and what is not known, just as, in the case of substance, there was an opposition between the conscious and the unconscious; and the absolute right of ethical self-consciousness comes into conflict with the divine right of the essential reality. Self-consciousness, qua consciousness, takes the objective actuality, as such, to have essential being. Looking at its substance, however, it is the unity of itself and this opposite, and the ethical self-consciousness is consciousness of that substance: the object, qua opposed to self-consciousness, has, therefore, entirely lost the characteristic of having essential being by itself. Just as the spheres [of conscious life] where the object is merely a “thing” are long past and gone, so, too, are these spheres, where consciousness sets up and establishes something from out itself, and turns a particular moment into the essential reality (Wesen). Against such one-sidedness actual concrete reality has a power of its own; it takes the side of truth against consciousness and shows consciousness itself what the truth is. The ethical consciousness, however, has drunk from the cup of the absolute substance, forgotten all the one-sidedness of isolating self-existence, all its purposes and peculiar notions, and has, therefore, at the same time drowned in this Stygian stream all essentiality of nature and all the independence claimed by the objective reality. Its absolute right, therefore, when it acts in accordance with ethical law, is to find in this actualization nothing else than the fulfilment and performance of this law itself: and that the deed should manifest nothing but ethical action.

The ethical, being absolute essence and absolute power at once, cannot endure any perversion of its content. If it were merely absolute essence without power, it might undergo perversion at the hands of individuality. But this latter, being ethical consciousness, has renounced all perverting when it gave up its one-sided subjectivity (Fürsichseyn). Conversely, again, mere power might be perverted by the essential reality, if power were still a subjectivity of that kind. On account of this unity, individuality is a pure form of the substance which is the content, and action consists in transition from thought over into reality, merely as the process of an unreal opposition, whose moments have no special and particular content distinct from one another, and no essential nature of their own. The absolute right of ethical consciousness is, therefore, that the deed, the mode and form of its realization, should be nothing else than it knows.

But the essential ethical reality has split asunder into two laws, and consciousness, taking up an undivided single attitude towards law, is assigned only to one. Just as this simple consciousness takes its stand on the absolute right that the essential reality has appeared to it qua ethical as that reality inherently is, so, too, this essence insists on the right belonging to its reality, i.e. the right of having a double form.(1) This right of the essential reality does not, however, at the same time stand over against and opposed to self-consciousness, as if it were to be found anywhere else; rather it is the essential nature of self-consciousness. Only there has it its existence and its power; and its opposition is the act of self-consciousness itself. For the latter, just in that it is a self to itself, and proceeds to act, lifts itself out of the state of simple immediacy, and itself sets up the division into two. By the act it gives up the specific character of the ethical life, that of being pure and simple certainty of immediate truth, and sets up the division of itself into self as active and reality over against it, and for it, therefore, negative. By the act it thus becomes Guilt. For the deed is its doing, and doing is its inmost nature. And the guilt acquires also the meaning of Crime; for as simple ethical consciousness it has turned to and conformed itself to the one law, but turned away from the other and thus violates the latter by its deed.

Guilt is not an external indifferent entity (Wesen) with the double meaning, that the deed, as actualiv manifested to the light of day, may be an action of the guilty self, or may not be so, as if with the doing of, it there could be connected something external and accidental that did not belong to it, from which point of view, therefore, the action would be innocent. Rather the act is itself this diremption, this affirming itself for itself, and establishing over against this an. alien external reality. That such a reality exists is due to the deed itself, and is the outcome of it. Hence, innocence is an attribute merely of the want of action (Nicht-thun), a state like the mere being of a stone, and one which is not even true of a child.

Looking at the content, however, the ethical act contains the element of wrongdoing, because it does not cancel and transcend the natural allotment of the two laws to the two sexes; but rather, being an undivided attitude towards the law, keeps within the sphere of natural immediacy, and, qua acting, turns this one-sidedness into guilt, by merely laying hold of one side of the essential reality and taking up a negative relation towards the other, i.e. violating it. Where, in the general ethical life, guilt and crime, deeds and actions, come in, will be more definitely brought out later. Meantime, so much is at once clear, that it is not this particular individual who acts and becomes guilty. For he, qua this particular self, is merely a shadowy unreality; he is merely qua universal self, and individuality is purely the formal aspect of doing anything at all, while its content is the laws and customs, which, for the individual, are, specifically, the laws and customs of his class or station. He is the substance qua genus, which by its determinateness becomes, no doubt, a species, but the specific form remains at the same time the generic universal. Self-consciousness within the life of a nation descends from the universal only down as far as specific particularity, but not as far as the single individuality, which sets up an exclusive self, establishes in its action a reality negative to itself. On the contrary, the action of that self-consciousness rests on secure confidence in the whole, into which there enters nothing alien or foreign, neither fear nor hostility.

Ethical self-consciousness now comes to find in its deed the full explicit meaning of concrete real action as much when it followed divine law as when it followed human. The law manifest to it is, in the essential reality, bound up with its opposite; the essential reality is the unity of both; but the deed has merely carried out one as against the other. But being bound up with this other in the inner reality, the fulfilment of the one calls forth the other, in the shape of something which, having been violated and now become hostile, demands revenge — an attitude which the deed has made it take up. In the case of action, only one phase of the decision is in general in evidence. The decision, however, is inherently something negative, which plants an “other” in opposition to it, something foreign to the decision, which is clear knowledge. Actual reality, therefore, keeps concealed within itself this other aspect alien to clear knowledge, and does not show itself to consciousness as it fully and truly is (an und für sich). In the story of Œdipus the son does not see his own father in the person of the man who has insulted him and whom be strikes to death, nor his mother in the queen whom he makes his wife. In this way a hidden power shunning the light of day, waylays the ethical self-consciousness, a power which bursts forth only after the deed is done, and seizes the doer in the act. For the completed deed is the removal of the opposition between the knowing self and the reality over against it. The ethical consciousness cannot disclaim the crime and its guilt. The deed consists in setting in motion what was unmoved, and in bringing out what in the first instance lay shut up as a mere possibility, and thereby linking on the unconscious to the conscious, the non-existent to the existent. In this truth, therefore, the deed comes to the light; — it is something in which a conscious element is bound up with what is unconscious, what is peculiarly one’s own with what is alien and external:— it is an essential reality divided in sunder, whose other aspect consciousness experiences and also finds to be its own aspect, but as a power violated by its doing, and roused to hostility against it.

It may well be that the right, which kept itself in reserve, is not in its peculiar form present to the consciousness of the doer, but is merely implicit, present in the subjective inward guilt of the decision and the action. But the ethical consciousness is more complete, its guilt purer, if it knows beforehand the law and the power which it opposes, if it takes them to be sheer violence and wrong, to be a contingency in the ethical life, and wittingly, like Antigone, commits the crime. The deed when accomplished transforms its point of view; the very performance of it eo ipso expresses that what is ethical has to be actual; for the realization of the purpose is the very purpose of acting. Acting expresses precisely the unity of reality and the substance; it expresses the fact that actuality is not an accident for the essential element, but that, in union with that element, it is given to no right which is not true right. On account of this actuality and on account of its deed ethical consciousness must acknowledge its opposite as its own actuality; it must acknowledge its guilt.

Because of our sufferings we acknowledge we have erred.(2)

To acknowledge this is expressly to indicate that the severance between ethical purpose and actuality has been clone away; it means the return to the ethical frame of mind, which knows that nothing counts but right. Thereby, however, the agent surrenders his character and the reality of his self, and has utterly collapsed. His being lies in belonging to his ethical law, as his substance; in acknowledging the opposite law, however, he has ceased to find his substance in this law; and instead of reality this has become an unreality, a mere sentiment, a frame of mind. The substance no doubt appears as the “pathic” element(3) in the individuality, and the individuality appears as the factor which animates the substance, and hence stands above it. But the substance is a “pathic” element which is at the same time his character; the ethical individuality is directly and inherently one with this its universal, exists in it alone, and is incapable of surviving the destruction which this ethical power suffers at the hands of its opposite.

This individuality, however, has all the same the certainty that that individuality, whose “pathic” element is this opposite power [the opposed law], suffers no more harm than it has inflicted. The opposition of the ethical powers to one another, and the process of the individualities setting up these powers in life and action, have reached their true end only in so far as both sides undergo the same destruction. For neither of the powers has any advantage over the other that it should be a more essential moment of the substance common to both. The fact of their being equally and to the same degree essential, and subsisting independently beside each other, means their having no separate self; in the act they have a self-nature, but a different self — which contradicts the unity of the self and cancels their claim to independent right, and thus brings about their necessary destruction. Character too, in part, looking at its “pathic” element, the substance, belongs to one alone; in part, when we look at the aspect of knowledge, the one character like the other is divided into a conscious element and an unconscious: and since each itself calls forth this opposition, and the want of knowledge is by the act also its doing, each falls into the guilt which consumes it. The victory of one power and its character, and the defeat of the other side, would thus be merely the part and the incomplete work, which steadily advances till the equilibrium between the two is attained. It is in the equal subjection of both sides that absolute right is first accomplished, and the ethical substance, as the negative force devouring both sides, in other words omnipotent and righteous Destiny, makes its appearance.

If both powers are taken according to their specific content and its individualization, we have the scene presented of a contest between them as individuated. On its formal side, this is the struggle of the ethical order and of self-consciousness with unconscious nature and a contingency due to this nature. The latter has a right as against the former, because this is only objective spirit, merely in immediate unity with its substance. On the side of content, the struggle is the rupture of divine and human law. The youth goes forth from the unconscious life of the family and becomes the individuality of the community [i.e. Ruler]. But that he still shares the natural life from which he has torn himself away is seen in the fact that he emerges there — from only to find his claim affected by the contingency that there are two brothers(4) who with equal right take possession of the community;(5) the inequality due to the one having been born earlier and the other later, an inequality which is a natural difference, has no importance for them when they enter the ethical life of society. But government, as the single soul, the self of the national spirit, does not admit of a duality of individuality; and in contrast to the ethical necessity of this unity, nature appears as by accident providing more than one. These two [brothers], therefore, become disunited; and their equal right in regard to the power of the state is destructive to both, for they are equally wrong. Humanly considered, he has committed the crime who, not being in actual possession, attacks the community, at the head of which the other stood. While again he has right on his side who knew how to seize the other merely qua particular individual, detached from the community, and who banished him, while thus powerless, out of the community; he has merely laid hands on the individual as such, not the community, not the essential nature of human right. The community, attacked and defended from a point of view which is merely particular, maintains itself; and both brothers find their destruction reciprocally through one another. For individuality, which involves peril to the whole in the maintenance of its own self-existence (Fürsichseyn), has thrust its own self out of the community, and is disintegrated in its own nature. The community, however, will do honour to the one who is found on its side; the government, the reestablished singleness of the self of the community, will punish by depriving of the last honour him who already proclaimed its devastation on the walls of the city. He who came to affront the highest spiritual form of conscious life, the spirit of the community, must be stripped of the honour of his entire and complete nature, the honour due to the spirit of the departed.(6)

But if the universal thus lightly knocks off the highest point of its pyramid, and doubtless triumphs victoriously over the family, the rebellious principle of individuation, it has thereby merely put itself into conflict with divine law, the self-conscious with the unconscious spirit. For the latter, this unconscious spirit, is the other essential power, and therefore the power undestroyed, and only insulted by the former. It finds, however, only a bloodless shade to lend it help towards actually carrying itself out in the face of that masterful and openly enunciated law. Being the law of weakness and of darkness, it therefore gives way, to begin with, before law which has force and publicity; for the strength of the former is effective in the nether realm, not on earth and in the light of day. But the actual and concrete, which has taken away from what is inward its honour and its power, has thereby consumed its own real nature. The spirit which is manifest to the light of day has the roots of its power in the lower world: the certainty felt by a nation, a certainty which is sure of itself and which makes itself assured, finds the truth of its oath binding all its members into one, solely in the mute unconscious substance of all, in the waters of forgetfulness. In consequence, the fulfilment of the public spirit turns round into its opposite, and learns that its supreme right is supreme wrong, its victory rather its own defeat. The slain, whose right is injured, knows, therefore, how to find means of vengeance which are equally as real and strong as the power at whose hands it has suffered. These powers are other communities,(7) whose altars the dogs or birds defiled with the corpse of the dead, which is not raised into unconscious universality by being restored, as is its due, to the ultimate individuum, the elemental earth, but instead has remained above ground in the sphere of reality, and has now received, as the force of divine law, a self-conscious actual universality. They rise up in hostility, and destroy the community which has dishonoured and destroyed its own power, the sacred claims, the “piety” of the family.

Represented in this way, the movement of human and divine law finds the expression of its necessity in individuals, in whom the universal appears as a “pathic” element, and the activity of the movement as action of individuals, which gives the appearance of contingency to the necessity of the process. But individuality and action constitute the principle of individuation in general, a principle which in its pure universality was called inner divine law. As a moment of the visible community it does not merely exhibit that unconscious activity of the nether world, its operation is not simply external in its existence; it has an equally manifest visible existence and process, actual in the actual nation. Taken in this form, what was represented as a simple process of the “pathic” element as embodied in individuals, assumes another look, and crime and the resulting ruin of the community assume the proper form of their existence.

Human law, then, in its universal mode of existence is the community, in its efficient operation in general is the manhood of the community, in its actual efficient operation is the government. It has its being, its process, and its subsistence by consuming and absorbing into itself the separatist action of the household gods (Penates), the individualization into insular independent families which are under the management of womankind, and by keeping them dissolved in the fluent continuum of its own nature. The family at the same time, however, is in general its element, the individual consciousness its universal operative basis. Since the community gets itself subsistence only by breaking in upon family happiness, and dissolving [individual] self-consciousness into the universal, it creates its enemy for itself within its own gates, creates it in what it suppresses, and what is at the same time essential to it — womankind in general. Womankind the everlasting irony in the life of the community changes by intrigue the universal purpose of government into a private end, transforms its universal activity into a work of this or that specific individual, and perverts the universal property of the state into a possession and ornament for the family. Woman in this way turns to ridicule the grave wisdom of maturity, which, being dead to all particular aims, to private pleasure, personal satisfaction, and actual activity as well, thinks of, and is concerned for, merely what is universal; she makes this wisdom the laughing-stock of raw and wanton youth, an object of derision and scorn, unworthy of their enthusiasm. She asserts that it is everywhere the force of youth that really counts; she upholds this as of primary significance; extols a son as one who is the lord and master of the mother who has borne him; a brother as one in whom the sister finds man on a level with herself; a youth as one through whom the daughter, freed from her dependence (on the family unity), acquires the satisfaction and the dignity of wifehood.

The community, however, can preserve itself only by suppressing this spirit of individualism; and because the latter is an essential element, the community likewise creates it as well, and creates it, too, by taking up the attitude of seeking to suppress it as a hostile principle. Nevertheless, since, by cutting itself off from the universal purpose, this hostile element is merely evil, and in itself of no account, it would be quite ineffective if the community itself did not recognize the force of youth, (manhood, which, while immature, still remains in the condition of particularity), as the force of the whole. For the community, the whole, is a nation, it is itself individuality, and really only is something for itself by other individualities being for it, by its excluding these from itself and knowing itself independent of them. The negative side of the community, suppressing the isolation of individuals within its own bounds, but originating activity directed beyond those bounds, finds the weapons of its warfare in individuals. War is the spirit and form in which the essential moment of ethical substance, the absolute freedom of ethical self-consciousness from all and every kind of existence, is manifestly confirmed and realized. While, on the one hand, war makes the particular spheres of property and personal independence, as well as the personality of the individual himself, feel the force of negation and destruction, on the other hand this engine of negation and destruction stands out as that which preserves the whole in security. The individual who provides pleasure to woman, the brave youth, the suppressed principle of ruin and destruction, comes now into prominence, and is the factor of primary significance and worth. It is now physical strength and what seems like the chance of fortune, that decide as to the existence of ethical life and spiritual necessity. Because the existence of the ethical life thus rests on physical strength and the chances of fortune, it is eo ipso settled that its overthrow has come. While only household gods, in the former case, gave way before and were absorbed in the national spirit, here the living individual embodiments of the national spirit fall by their own individuality and disappear in one universal community, whose bare universality is soulless and dead, and whose living activity is found in the particular individual qua particular. The ethical form and embodiment of the life of spirit has passed away, and another mode appears in its place.

This disappearance of the ethical substance, and its transition into another mode are thus determined by the ethical consciousness being directed upon the law essentially in an immediate way. It lies in this character of immediacy that nature at all enters into the acts which constitute the ethical life. Its realization simply reveals the contradiction and the germ of destruction, which lie hid within that very peace and beauty belonging to the gracious harmony and peaceful equilibrium of the ethical spirit. For the essence and meaning of this immediacy contains a contradiction: it is at once the unconscious peace of nature and the self-conscious unresting peace of spirit. On account of this “naturalness”, this ethical nation is, in general, an individuality determined by nature, and therefore limited, and thus finds its dissolution in, and gives place to, another individuality. This determinateness being given a positive existence, is a limitation, but at the same time is the negative element in general and the self of individuality. In so far, however, as this determinateness passes away, the life of spirit and this substance, conscious of itself in all its component in duals, are lost. The substance comes forth and stands apart as a formal universality of all the component individuals, and no longer dwells within them as living spirit; instead, the uniform solidarity of their individuality has burst into a plurality of separate points.

1. Viz. divine and human law.

2. An adaptation from Antigone, 926.

3. The element that so permeates his being as to constitute his controlling necessity and destiny.

4. Eteocles and Polynices: v. Œdipus at Colonus.

5. viz. the throne of their Father Œdipus.

6. v. Antigone.

7. Refers to the attack of Argos against Thebes: v. Antigone.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38